Monday, August 18, 2014
The most notable characteristic of high conflict divorce is heightened drama: emotional outbursts, nasty email exchanges, verbal confrontations, destruction of property, personal and legal attacks. Such impulsive, angry behaviors often pull in others, including extended family members, police officers, and judiciary. And it’s not just the adults, the children too contribute to the drama: running away, melting down emotionally, making false allegations, or displaying public tantrums and defiant behavior intended to humiliate one or both parents.
But the amount of time and energy that such high conflict cases demand of divorce professionals is far disproportionate to their actual number; in the great majority of divorces, family members evidence much better self-control. This is not to say such families don’t experience strong emotions, but they keep expressions of affect within reasonable bounds and inhibit impulsive behaviors.
The importance of self-control cannot be over-emphasized. Children (and adults) with higher self-control are better adjusted in all areas of life. They report higher GPAs, more rewarding relationships and better interpersonal skills, and they organize their behavior around long-term goals rather than temptations of the moment. In contrast, people with low self-control report a broad range of unhappy and undesirable outcomes in school, work, and social life. It’s not surprising, then, that the children of high conflict divorces, who witness and imitate their parents’ negative behaviors, exhibit far more post-divorce adjustment difficulty than children whose parents exhibit self-control.
Experts define self-control (also called emotional self-regulation) in several different ways. Quite simply, however, self-control can be thought of as doing what is best in the long run despite more immediately rewarding temptations. A person who wants to minimize the long-term risk of developing atherosclerosis, for example, demonstrates self-control by resisting the immediate temptation to eat ice cream and making food choices that may be less gratifying, but healthier in the long run. Similarly, an angry teen who recognizes the long-term value of developing compassion and understanding even in the face of conflict, resists the temptation to berate or reject their divorcing parent, a gratifying prospect, despite that parent’s disappointing behavior. In contrast, consider the angry, divorced parent who is gratified by badmouthing the other parent – only to experience blowback when the children decide such behavior is despicable and unfair. This parent’s long-term interest in having close, rewarding relationships with the children is undermined by indulging in the momentary emotional pleasure of hurting the other parent.
Self-control is not a talent or a given. It’s like a muscle; practice and exercise make it stronger. One way to improve self-control is to avoid exposure to situations that trigger impulsive behavior. Some dieters, for example, avoid the freezer isle in grocery stores to reduce the likelihood of buying pizzas and ice cream. Divorced parents who confront one another when exchanging the children are encouraged to schedule the children’s transitions at the start and end of school in order to avoid one another entirely. In extreme cases, courts will impose protective orders to minimize the chance of angry confrontations.
Another way to improve self-control is to shift one’s attention from immediate temptations to longer term goals. In its simplest form, this means distracting oneself by focusing on something else. Many runners, for example, listen to favorite music on their iPods to focus on something other than their labored breathing and aching muscles. One can also shift attention to make long-term goals more real and present – such as one divorcing spouse who didn’t react to their ex’ provocative behavior by remembering: “I want to look back with pride on how I handled myself, not with regret that I got drawn into the mud.”
Other cognitive methods include distancing oneself psychologically from the situation at hand (“going to the balcony”), reframing the situation (“this is a test of my maturity and patience”), and imagining an observing audience (or individual) whose respect is needed or valued.
One final tip: The worst time to try to regain self-control is in the heat of the moment. It is more effective to anticipate difficult situations ahead of time when a cool head still prevails. Plan work-arounds (“let’s meet in public at the coffee shop where neither of us wants to embarrass ourselves”), devise distraction techniques (“I’m going to focus on my homework rather than my step-parent’s lame jokes”), or create new ways of framing a situation (“If I don’t react to her provocations, I will demonstrate to everyone how cool-headed and reliable I am”).